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12.03.2019 18:54    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  vayikra  

Sacrifices and their Acceptance

A central theme in the book of Leviticus is the offering of various sorts of sacrifices. The Hebrew name of the book, Va-Yikra (= He called) is taken from its first word and is considered merely a technical nomenclature. I would like to draw a connection between this word and the essence of the book, namely the question of what is supposed to happen when a sacrifice is offered.

Leviticus continues the book of Exodus, which concludes with the words: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34).

Exodus Rabbah[1] explains that Moses understood that he needed to be granted permission to enter the Tent of Meeting:

In the case of the Tent of Meeting, he argued thus: If I might not ascend Sinai, hallowed only during Revelation, without first obtaining Divine permission, as it says, “The Lord called to him from the mountain, saying” (Ex. 19:3), how can I enter the Tent of Meeting, which is consecrated for all generations, unless the Holy One, blessed be He, calls to me? G‑d agreed, for it says, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 1:1).

In other words, after the enormous effort of erecting the Tabernacle, built so that the Holy One, blessed be He, could meet there with Moses, it was not at all clear whether the whole project had succeeded and whether Moses would indeed be able to enter the Tabernacle. This depended on the consent of the Holy One, blessed be He—something which was not automatically guaranteed. Nahmanides interprets (Lev. 1:1):

Here Scripture says, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him,” but it does not do so elsewhere; for Moses could not come to the Tent of Meeting, could not approach the place where G‑d was, except by being called, for Moses had previously been told, “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover” (Ex. 25:22), “where I will meet with you” (Ex. 30:6). Since he knew that the Lord’s seat was on the cherubim, he was afraid to enter the Tent of Meeting at all, until he be called as he had been summoned on Mount Sinai, where it says, “On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud” (Ex. 24:16).[2]

Only when the Lord called to Moses with an approving summons, could Moses enter and hear the word of the Lord. In other words, the Holy One, blessed be He, chose to call to Moses; this was not a necessary consequence of the Tabernacle having been erected. About what did the Lord speak to Moses? About the sacrifices: “Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering to the Lord” (Lev. 1:2).

I would like to expand on the connection between the summons to enter the Tabernacle and the sacrifices, arguing that also with sacrifices, just as with entering the Tabernacle, we do not have a process with a guaranteed result. There is no promise made to the person bringing a sacrifice that his offering will be accepted, and it is not certain that a process of drawing near will occur between the bringer of the sacrifice and the Holy One, blessed be He. All this is intimated to us and revealed in the connection between “The Lord called to Moses” and the first theme concerning which the Lord commanded Moses after he entered the Tabernacle: offering sacrifices.

Sforno (in his commentary on Lev. 1:2) stresses the emotional state of the one making the offering, a state of submission:

When anyone presents an offering [Heb. Adam ki yakriv mi-mikem korban. Lit. “A person, if he should present of yourselves an offering”]: If anyone presents an offering of themselves, accompanied by words of confession and submission, as in the expression, “Instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips” (Hosea 14:3), and as it says, “True sacrifice to G‑d is a contrite spirit” (Ps. 51:19). For the offerings of fools, without prior submission, is not desired.

Maharal[3] says: “This is the meaning of the word “sacrifice” (korban): drawing near (hitkarvut) to the Holy One, blessed be He, by means of an offering.” Many great leaders of Hassidism have taken this approach, as well.[4]

We seek to draw near to the Holy One, blessed be He, by offering sacrifices. Of course there is an expectation that the offering will have an effect, and the one making the offering will feel closer to the Holy One, blessed be He. However, the question under discussion is whether the giver of the sacrifice can be sure of the success of his actions? For the purpose of illustration, suppose we are dealing with free-will offerings, burnt offerings, or offerings of well-being; is there any assurance that when a person brings such an offering with the sincere intention of drawing close, and there is no “technical” flaw in the offering—is there any assurance that this process will bring about the desired blessed effect and the person will find himself closer to the Holy One, blessed be He?

In approaching this question, the prophets tell us that there is a precondition to the act of sacrifice, namely that the person bringing the offering must be of appropriate moral and social level, for if not, then the Lord will not desire his offering. This warning is given us by Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Hosea and Micah.[5]

Let us sharpen the question and consider the case where the following conditions are indeed satisfied: 1) The person is morally worthy. 2) There is no technical flaw in the sacrifice. Under such circumstances, is drawing closer guaranteed? In my humble opinion, the answer is No. A human being can do his part, but he has no way of knowing, assuring, surmising, or foreseeing what the response of the Holy One, blessed be He, will be.

Clear proof of this is found as far back as the book of Genesis: “In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed” (Gen. 4:3-5).

Cain was the first to think of bringing an offering and the first to actually carry out the idea; Abel was only following his lead. Nevertheless, the Lord paid no heed to Cain’s offering and did not accept his sacrifice. In other words, a person must do his best, but the Holy One, blessed be He, makes His own calculations and a positive response is not guaranteed.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in the very beginning of Leviticus, as I said above. There is uncertainty both as to Moses’ ability to enter the Tabernacle and as to the ability of a person giving a sacrifice to draw near to the Holy One, blessed be He.

It should be noted that the connection between the opening line of the book and the sacrifices appears explicitly in the midrash:

There are nine words [the nine words in Hebrew, in the first verse of Leviticus], for each of the nine sacrifices (Lev. 7:37-38): “Such are the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being, with which the Lord charged Moses on Mount Sinai…to present their offerings”—that is, the first-born, the tithe and the Passover, making nine. (Otzar Midrashim, Eisenstein, p. 70)

In contrast to pagan religions, in which man tried to control the gods through sacrifice, the Jewish believer recognizes that man is naught in comparison with the greatness of the Creator. The Jew is obliged to worship his Maker, but the Creator is not obliged to accept his worship and petition. Joab, the commander of King David’s army, said this in his double battle against the Arameans and Ammonites: “Let us be strong and resolute for the sake of our people and the land of our G‑d; and the Lord will do what He deems right” (II Sam. 10:12). A person must try his utmost, but we cannot know the considerations of the Almighty.

This also has practical implications for us today, when we no longer have sacrificial worship and prayers have taken the place of sacrifice. We are commanded to pray the very best that we can, and when we pray we must be at a suitable moral level for our prayers to be received. Supposing a prayer was excellent according to every criterion, does that mean that we thereby attained closeness to the Holy One, blessed be He?

The above analysis provides an answer. Yet, perhaps it is possible to reduce the uncertainty. When a person prays humbly before his Maker, there is a greater chance of being answered. This is intimated by the word va-yikra, which ends with a miniature letter aleph. On this Rabbi Meir ben Barukh wrote:[6]

My mentor, Rabbi Meir of blessed memory, gave the following interpretation: Moses, being a great and humble man, wanted to write va-yiker, with the meaning of chance appearance, as if He spoke with him in a dream; but the Holy One, blessed be He, told him: write va-yikra [adding an aleph at the end of the word, thus changing the meaning to “he called”]. Moses did not want to write this explicitly on account of his humility, so he said: I will write it smaller than all the other aleph letters in the Torah.

When G‑d calls to man, and all the more so when man seeks G‑d, he must do so with humility. May it be the Lord’s will that we always pray with the humility intimated by the tiny aleph of va-yikra and that the Lord heed our prayers.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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